Q&A: PACE Society Senior Staffer Talks Safety and Financial Aid For Sex Workers During Covid-19

By Charmaine Noronha 4/14/20 | www.samaritanmag.com

Sex workers — photo credit: iStock, Toni Palermo

One sector of the population that has been largely neglected in terms of financial aid during the covid-19 pandemic is sex workers, who rely on human contact to make a living. While some can operate online and via phone calls to some extent, they remain largely unable to work safely during this time. And with brothels and spaces closing, some sex workers don’t have a safe space to work or a significant safety net when their workplace shuts down.

“Until we give people enough money to survive, we can't tell them not to go to work to earn money to feed their families,” says Kit Rothschild, a senior support worker for PACE Society, a peer-driven organization located in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver that provides support, advocacy, and education by, with, and for current and former sex workers of all genders.

“Now would be an ideal time for the rescue and abolitionist industry to hand sex workers in need some of the many multi-millions in funding so they can actually be safe, self-isolate and take care of themselves, as that's what has been recommend by the health authority,” she tells Samaritanmag.

In Canada, sex work is decriminalized, however, paying for sex is not, and furthermore, the industry remains stigmatized. Some survival sex workers, those who engage in this work due to extreme need, may not be able to provide or meet the legal identification or background checks required to apply for government aid.

Organizations such as Butterfly and long-standing non-profit Maggie’s Sex Worker Action Group, known as Maggie’s in Toronto, have teamed up to host a COVID-19 emergency fund for local sex workers struggling to support themselves and their families during the pandemic.

PACE is offering microgrants of $100-200 weekly through its Sex Worker Relief Fund.

With sex workers in a precarious position when it comes to navigating the current climate, Samaritanmag chatted with Rothschild about various issues specific to the sex industry

How is the pandemic affecting sex workers?

I think most people would be shocked at the amount of lost revenue, and how immediately even sex workers with some privilege have been thrown into uncertainty. Lots of sex workers are struggling right now to pay rent, keep food on their shelves, and the lights on. Others are struggling to obtain their basic daily needs, like medication and a safe place to sleep. People are scared and rightly so. Because we live under capitalism, a lot of people feel like they can’t stop working right now, so we need to help them work as safely as they are able.

Photo credit: iStock, Motortion
Are sex workers facing greater safety concerns right now?

Clients have become more predatory, they’re taking more risks because they know police are already overloaded with calls right now. It’s becoming a more dangerous landscape because of how people are working as well. A lot of people were working outside but now that’s really dead so it's even more unsafe than it has been so a lot of people are shifting to online work who are able to, who have the Internet.

Another aspect of safety that's really important is that right now there's emergency powers, which means that police have more discretion than they normally do, which is already problematic. And we've already heard there’s an uptake in police harassment of folks experiencing homelessness or folks who are working outside. I think PACE and the downtown Eastside groups are working really hard on a response to make sure that those who are unable to pay fines obviously not be charged with fines. It certainly seems like folks are taking pretty heavy-handed policing, which we know from past pandemics doesn't really work very well. So there's also a risk to safety in regards to policing sex workers.

Presumably you mean fines for being in gatherings or do you mean fines related to their work?

Both. The way that the public health officer has stated things, any in-person work right now, like any in-person body work has been deemed not OK, so technically, people could be fined just for doing their work, which is obviously already problematic because their work shouldn’t be criminalized, that’s not going to make it any safer. I think that's something that really needs to get paid attention to. I feel like there's lots of really good research and conversations happening around not policing pandemics through the Canadian HIV-AIDS Law Foundation.

Have you had to close your doors at PACE?

Yeah, it's been really hard for people. It's been really hard for staff to make that decision. It means that a couple of people who were sleeping inside our doors have not been sleeping there or haven't felt as safe in the places where they're sleeping. Some, I think, are just going hungry because we aren't providing food anymore. So there is a real need in the community for all sorts of things right now.

What is PACE offering sex workers during this time? Any new programs or initiatives?

We are now offering support over the phone or internet for all our members. We have created a fund that we are dispersing directly to workers most in need. PACE is offering microgrants and a committee of seven current and former sex workers meet weekly to approve, which applicants will receive microgrants of $100-200 weekly. Since its creation, we have provided 89 people with microgrants totalling $13,700. Members have reported that this has been massively helpful.

Are there any alternatives for safe spaces?

Currently Wish Drop-In Society still is open. And there's a list running of what's still operating in the downtown East side and where folks can access hand washing stations or showers and that kind of stuff.

Are those who work for brothels or other outlets receiving any kind of aid or assistance that you're aware of? Are they pressured to continue to work when they should be self-isolating?  

As far as we are aware, there haven't been reports of brothels supporting their workers right now. This would be a much welcome initiative on the part of managers/owners everywhere. 

Do any of the government's financial assistance programs apply to sex workers?

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) will apply to anyone who is self-employed who has filed their taxes for 2018. Many workers have not filed taxes, so this is a major priority. We are looking for volunteers to assist sex workers to file their taxes.  Folks who don't have the capacity to get taxes done will not be eligible, from what we understand.  We are hoping that workers on social assistance will receive a top-up that would put them on the same page as people who are out of work due to COVID-19. If the government is offering people $2,000 a month, it should apply to people most at risk with COVID-19. In my opinion, there are not enough safety nets after decades of neo-liberal austerity measures to protect anyone, let alone people truly living on the margins of society at the best of times.

What would be most helpful?

Putting money into people's hands. Canceling rent. Nationalizing utilities and the internet so people can be connected. Opening hotel rooms immediately for all folks living in single room occupancy apartments with shared bathrooms as hygiene can't be guaranteed, as well as for anyone living in shelters, or living outside. People need telephones with prepaid monthly plans, as people really need to stay in touch with their community. Guaranteed delivery service for supplies so people can safely self-isolate. 

I’m not sure if the term ‘pimp’ is still used or if it’s politically correct, but I was wondering if there have been increasing demands from managers or ‘pimps’ during this time?

That's not usually a term we hear. In the three years that I've been working at PACE, I can count on one hand the number of times people have said that term. Some people refer to somebody who manages their work as their pimps and oftentimes, it’s romantic partners who are literally just like trying to keep their partners safe while she’s working, but no, I haven’t heard of increasing demands from them during this time.

Are sex workers having to take clients they might not have otherwise during this time? 

Some folks aren’t eligible for social assistance or CERB so sometimes they have to take a client they may not have otherwise and it’s just what they have to do. I think the issue of safety is going to keep coming up especially for people who are taking clients online who haven’t taken clients online before. They don’t have experience screening clients online, or the best know-how of how to do so because it’s quite easy to get scammed online.

Can you explain what you mean by getting scammed online?

There are people out there who will waste a bunch of time, asking sex workers to send photos or who will write a bad review saying that they saw them and they were terrible at their job, which can screw up their business for a while. A lot of the scams are related to people who are like, ‘I wanna be your sugar daddy, send me in your banking information and I can provide you with all of your needs.’ There are a lot of variations for how folks can be harassed online. Cyber security for sex workers is a whole other game.

Are there any resources or guides to assist sex workers in this regard? To help guide them about making the transition to online work?

Maggies puts out a really great guide that talks a lot about how to transition to online work.  But a ‘how-to’ in Canada is a really fine line because of how the law is worded. You have to be really careful about how to give people advice about how to do that. There are or there used to be lots of forums on places like Tumblr that allow people to access information-gathering for sex workers. Like whisper networks originated there. Things like the red-light alert or date reports to expose bad dates. There's been some moves to create a unified bad-date reporting system. Ideally I would love to see something like a bad-date reporting system for the whole country because a lot of workers don't report to police. We know that there's not usually any reporting. There's a plethora of other predators out there.

Are there any apps to help sex workers make the transition to online work?

Some cities have rolled out apps. However, I think it's also an issue of making sure that people have phones and right now that's a big part of what the downtown East side response has been working on is getting hundreds of phones to give people so that they can stay connected and informed. A lot of people don't have phones. And there's also been a lot of theft of things like phones because people are in dire straits. There's so many levels to security around sex work in all different forms.

What are their civil rights during this unprecedented time?

We have been working with other downtown eastside Vancouver organizations to have a clear delineation for who should or shouldn't be charged for not following social distancing protocol etc — i.e., those who are experiencing homelessness or who have already experienced criminalization and who have no means to pay $1000 fines should be exempt, but it appears governments are pushing for a pro-enforcement model to these guidelines. As we already know, many people experiencing multiple marginalizations more frequently experience police harassment and criminalization. For the time being, we are advising our members to exercise extreme caution so that these new 'emergency powers' do not incur large fines that people have no way of paying off.

What can friends and family of sex workers do to help?

One of the best things that they can do if they know sex workers in their lives is take on doing things like shopping or run errands for that worker so that worker can isolate and be as safe as they can when they're working with clients.  And then the other giant thing that people are in dire need of right now is financial donations. And so that's a huge way that people can help. Organizations are offering emergency relief funds and I think that will be something that will be really key and necessary.

Are there particular organizations you’d like to recommend that the public can support?

Peers in Victoria, PACE in Vancouver, Maggie's in Toronto and Chez Stella in Montreal. All have a great history of having really excellent information and have worked through prior pandemics and have a really good lens on the de-stigmatization around viruses in general.

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